Qualified Mexico can play spoiler as rival Honduras seeks World Cup place
MEXICO CITY -- Mexico have already qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and their the 3-1 win over Trinidad & Tobago on Friday means the CONCACAF giants will likely secure seeding in Pot 2 in December's World Cup draw.
That win secured first-place honors in CONCACAF for manager Juan Carlos Osorio's men as they head into Tuesday's final qualifying match against Honduras.
However, El Tri can still play spoiler, as a win on the road in San Pedro Sula against Honduras would eliminate Mexico's rivals from the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After a crushing last-minute draw against Costa Rica last week, La Bicolor need to beat Mexico and hope Panama doesn't win their last game.
Mexico and Honduras have a long-standing rivalry that has heated up in recent years, especially during the qualifying cycle for the 2014 World Cup, when Honduras defeated Mexico at the Estadio Azteca (the loss was only El Tri's second at the stadium in World Cup qualifying history) and plunged the program into disarray.
After the match, Mexico manager Jose Manuel de la Torre was fired and the team struggled to qualify for Brazil 2014, eventually helped by the United States' last-minute win against Panama in the final matchday, sending El Tri to an inter-confederation playoff against New Zealand.
This time around, Honduras could be the team in that playoff, where they would face Australia. Yet La Bicolor possess a dismal goal differential: They have scored 10 but conceded 17 in nine games, so the more plausible scenario is an all-or-nothing result, with destiny out of their hands.
An added ingredient to the rivalry this time includes an unexpected assist in Honduras' last match from Mexican referee Cesar Ramos, whose generous stoppage-time decision benefited Panama and the United States, the other two teams still vying for a spot in next year's World Cup.
Honduras, leading 1-0 in the 90th minute, was forced to play an extra six minutes due to Ramos' command. A few seconds before the allotted time was up, Costa Rica's Kendall Waston headed home to level the game and wrest Honduras' destiny out of their hands.
After the game, Honduran players and media, along with manager Jose Luis Pinto, were outraged by Ramos' decision. Thus, nothing would be more pleasing to Honduras and their fans than to qualify for the World Cup via a triumph over Mexico at home and an assist from Costa Rica versus Panama.
Though unlikely, there is a second and third scenario in which Honduras can stay alive in their pursuit of the World Cup. If Trinidad & Tobago defeat the United States, and La Bicolor win at home against Mexico, Honduras are at least assured a playoff spot against Australia. If the United States and Panama both lose, while Honduras wins, then they would qualify directly, with the United States claiming the playoff spot. Both Panama and the United States possess better goal differentials than Honduras, wiping out all other scenarios.
On the Mexican side, little more than pride is at stake. Given Osorio's rotation policy, however, the game presents a strong opportunity for players considered on the fringe of making the final World Cup roster, or for those angling to get into Osorio's starting XI.
Outside of Hirving Lozano, Mexico's offense has been off-target of late, and with Raul Jimenez and Oribe Peralta potentially starting ahead of Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela in Honduras, the game represents a massive opportunity for both to stamp their claim on a starting spot in Russia.
In the midfield, it's anyone's guess as to who will start alongside Andres Guardado at the World Cup. Though Giovani dos Santos and Jonathan dos Santos have been given ample playing time recently, their season will soon end in the United States. The calendar, coupled with a drop in play for both, opens the door for others to claim their spots in the hopes of giving Osorio his strongest possible starting lineup.
Finally, keeper Alfredo Talavera is injured for the long term, so the goalkeeping debate has been reopened for Cruz Azul's Jose de Jesus Corona, who played well Friday. On Tuesday, it's expected that Guillermo Ochoa will get the call, and the Standard Liege goalkeeper will look to again remind why he has usually been the starter under Osorio's regime.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.